NASA set for Mars-bound spacecraft's biggest thruster blast

NASA firing Mars Laboratory's main thrusters on Jan. 11 for trajectory correction to Red Planet

nasa mars lab
NASA today said all systems were go for the Jan. 11 firing of its Mars Science Laboratory spacecraft's thrusters - a move that will more precisely set the ship's trajectory toward the Red Planet.

NASA said the blast is actually a choreographed sequence of firings of eight thruster engines during a period of about 175 minutes beginning at 3 p.m. PST.  The maneuver has been planned to use the spacecraft's inertial measurement unit to measure the spacecraft's orientation and acceleration.

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"We are well into cruise operations, with a well-behaved spacecraft safely on its way to Mars," said Mars Science Laboratory Cruise Mission Manager Arthur Amador, of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in a statement.  "After this trajectory correction maneuver, we expect to be very close to where we ultimately need to be for our entry point at the top of the Martian atmosphere." 

While this firing is planned to be the largest,  before its arrival at Mars on Aug. 5, NASA said there are opportunities for five more flight path correction maneuvers, as needed, for fine tuning.

On Jan. 15, the NASA said it  will begin a set of engineering checkouts that include tests of several components of the system for landing the rover on Mars and for the rover's communication with Mars orbiters.

Some other interesting facts about the Mars Science Laboratory spacecraft:

  • The spaceship's cruise-stage solar array is producing 780 watts.
  • The telecommunications rate is 2 kilobits per second for uplink and downlink. The spacecraft is spinning at 2.04 rotations per minute.
  • The Radiation Assessment Detector, one of 10 science instruments on the rover, is collecting science data about the interplanetary radiation environment.
  • As of 9 a.m. PST on Saturday, Jan. 7, the spacecraft will have traveled 72.9 million miles (117.3 million kilometers) of its 352-million-mile (567-million-kilometer) flight to Mars.
  • It will be moving at about 9,500 mph (15,200 kilometers per hour) relative to Earth and at about 69,500 mph (111,800 kilometers per hour) relative to the sun.

NASA calls the laboratory, which is expected to operate for at least two years once it arrives, the biggest astrobiology mission to Mars ever. The Mars Science Laboratory rover Curiosity will carry the biggest, most advanced suite of instruments for scientific studies ever sent to the Martian surface. Curiosity will use an onboard laboratory to study rocks, soils, and the local geologic setting in order to detect chemical building blocks of life.

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